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Reading the Ron Paul Revolution

Ron Paul’s The Revolution: A Manifesto is an important book. That’s not so much because of the ideas he presents, which are for the most part familiar fare, already addressed at greater length in recent popular treatments of libertarianism by Charles Murray, David Boaz, and James Bovard, among many others. It’s important because Ron Paul’s candidacy has interested a lot of people in libertarian ideas who probably haven’t read those other books, and because their exposure has come not in the context of academic dissatisfaction with the status quo, but in the context of political action. The book benefits from many of the Paul campaign’s virtues, in the form of accessibility, clarity, and straightforwardness. On the other hand, it also suffers from some of the Paul campaign’s vices, about which more later.

My biggest disagreement, and that of many libertarians with Paul, involves national security. Paul and I are both libertarians, but of different varieties. Paul is an old-fashioned Rothbardian. I’m more of a Heinleinian libertarian and we, like the Randian libertarians, tend to view national defense as more important than the Rothbardians do. Paul’s view, essentially, is that if we quit sending troops abroad, other people and countries would quit wanting to kill us. I’m not particularly persuaded by this. First, even during the minimal-government era of Thomas Jefferson we wound up at war with the Barbary Pirates (in many ways, the spiritual antecedents of today’s Islamic terrorists). And second, Paul is not an isolationist – he favors much more commercial and cultural engagement with foreign countries, something which, if experience is any guide, is as likely to anger Islamic fundamentalists and other varieties of terrorists and tyrants as is the establishment of foreign bases.

Beyond this disagreement – which is a major cleavage among libertarians generally – I find much to agree with. Paul is surely right that the federal government has expanded its powers far beyond anything the Framers contemplated, involving itself in things, like public education, that are best left to the states and to private entities. He is also right that the federal government’s massive expansion is both the cause and the symptom of government corruption, with politicians favoring big government as a source of additional patronage and graft, and with efforts by interest groups to pursue their agendas leading to the creation of new, self-perpetuating bureaucracies (like the Department of Education).

And that corruption is one reason why I disagree with Paul’s pooh-poohing of the Congressional earmarks issue, which he calls a distraction. He’s right, of course, that earmarks themselves account for only a small part of federal spending, with the lion’s share going to entitlements. But earmarks – as Paul, a member of Congress himself, surely knows – are the coin with which the Congressional leadership purchases votes for large spending bills that might otherwise be unlikely to pass. Earmarks also figure prominently in most cases of individual corruption on the part of members of Congess. Ending or controlling earmarks won’t stop wasteful spending, but it will make it easier to counter. Opposing earmarks is an incremental approach to reining in big government, but Paul seems to lack patience with incremental approaches.

Paul is, in my opinion, on-target in his criticisms of the Patriot Act (which I opposed) and in his opposition to some sort of government-provided National Health plan.

Those who favor national health care schemes should take a good, hard look at our veterans’ hospitals. There is your national health care. Those institutions are a national disgrace.l If this is the care the government dispenses to those it honors as its most heroic and admirable citizens, why should anyone else expect to be treated any better?

It may not actually be true, as Paul says, that “just about everyone is unhappy with the health care system we have now,” but it’s certainly true that it’s suboptimal. Free market systems are likely to deliver better care at lower cost than the current bizarre hybrid of employer-paid private insurance, government regulation, and user/payor separation.

I have a few other quibbles – Paul seems to take it for granted that libertarians should oppose abortion,when in fact that’s a highly contested issue among libertarians, and his enthusiasm for the gold standard and hatred of the Federal Reserve verge over toward crank territory – but ,fundamentally, I think it’s a terrific thing that large numbers of Americans are being exposed to these ideas. And, in fact, the areas of disagreement I’ve noted above are just that: disagreements, not fundamental flaws with his approach.

The main shortcoming in Paul’s book, as with his candidacy, is in the follow through, the transition from critique to action. Although he does include a chapter entitled “The Revolution,” about reducing the size of government, it’s a pretty skimpy plan. Were we to see a Ron Paul Administration, with a House and Senate made up of, well, Ron Pauls, it might have a chance of succeeding, though even so he’s a bit timid in places – proposing a freeze on the budgets of cabinet departments instead of their outright abolition, for example, despite noting that only State, Defense, and Justice have clear constitutional mandates. But given the unlikelihood of a Paul Administration, and the even greater unlikelihood of a Paul Congress, his policy prescriptions aren’t likely to bear fruit. But those who want to see liberty progress right here and right now will look in vain for suggestions on what they might do, right here and right now, to make progress.

Rome didn’t fall in a day, and today’s monster government didn’t spring up overnight. It was the result of incremental expansion. Given that we’re not likely to see an opportunity to downsize the federal government overnight, or even in a single Presidential term, those of libertarian inclinations might well look to incremental approaches to reining in Big Government. They will be well advised, however, to look elsewhere than Revolution: A Manifesto. Still, if Fabian Libertarianism is to have a future, it will owe much to the consciousness-raising of the Paul campaign. Socialist candidate Eugene Debs, after all, never got elected President either, but within a few decades much of his platform was adopted by the Democratic Party. May Paul enjoy similar influence on the future of national politics.

Glenn Reynolds is the Beauchamp Brogan Distinguished Professor of Law at the University of Tennessee, and blogs at InstaPundit.com.